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Why dedicated clients will always trump Android thin client devices

Using Android as a thin client is an interesting concept, but when it comes down to it, Android thin-client devices just can't get the job done.

Last year I wrote an article asking why we haven't seen Android thin clients yet, and recently I realized that...

the platform just isn't suitable for desktop-type use.

An Android device with a remote desktop client would also have the ability to run native Android applications, such as local browsers, content consumption applications and home-grown corporate applications developed for the platform. I tracked down a Logitech Revue Google TV device to test this on, but after using it for a while, I realized that both the use case and the device left something to be desired.

Android is cut from the mobile cloth, and that's not something that can be changed easily.

Last week, my attention again turned to Android thin client devices with the announcement of Dell Wyse's Project Ophelia. The device is small, plugs directly into the HDMI port on any display, and uses host power (either via HDMI or USB) to boot up an Android OS that can connect to remote desktops, access corporate Android applications and run traditional Android apps for remote users. Each device is managed by Dell Wyse Cloud Client Manager, which is the company's mobile device management package.

Through my experience with the Google TV-turned-thin client and my reconsideration of the entire use case, I've decided that Android thin clients don't exist because the platform isn't suited to be used as a thin client. Back in 2011, it was more or less assumed that Android would eventually be available on desktop form factors, with full keyboard and mouse support, not to mention the odd peripheral. That hasn't happened, though, despite many attempts at making Android mini-PCs.

What I want to consider is: Even if that happened and we had a good experience with the base OS, what's to be gained from Android thin client devices?

What if: Android on a thin client

A thin client in the traditional sense has dedicated hardware specifically for accessing remote desktops. Today, that means discrete processors for different types of video, protocol-handling and graphics. Thin-client performance is excellent because the device is built to do just one thing.

More on thin client devices

Dell and HP release new thin clients

Dell buys Wyse for thin client device

Using Android as a thin client would step that experience down a notch, possibly more. Using software to do the work instead of hardware consumes resources and -- especially on devices not made for this purpose -- results in a subpar user experience. Cheap Android thin clients certainly wouldn't be all that powerful, which means it would be similar to that of your phone -- and how much do you like your phone for remote desktop access?

You might think that if Android were made with keyboard and mouse support, plus displayed on a big screen, that would be better. That's true, but it wouldn't be as good as a dedicated thin client. Plus, it's another OS that you have to manage somehow. It requires updates and, since it's more customized than Android for smartphones, those updates have to be tested extensively before deployment. Admittedly, this is an advantage that a Dell Wyse device can provide, but other issues remain.

As for the application use case, there's no doubt it would be helpful for using Android apps in a more traditional setting. The problem is that the applications are not developed for that use. They're made for tablets and phones, not desktops with keyboards and mice.

Some of those problems can be solved by whoever is customizing the OS -- making the Android system aware of the Enter key, for instance. (Logitech made this work with the Google TV, but others I've seen do not work.) That only goes so far, though, because the applications are built for touch and gestures, not pointing, clicking and typing.

There is such a long way to go to make Android a viable desktop or thin client platform that it just isn't practical right now. Perhaps Wyse or other companies will change that, but even they can only do so much. Android is cut from the mobile cloth, and that's not something that can be changed easily.

This was last published in January 2013

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Essential Guide

Guide to choosing and managing VDI thin clients

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Would you use an Android thin client to access a remote desktop? Why or why not?
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I'm starting to evaluate HP slate all-in one 21 touch as thin client on our business.
Seems to be attractive (for the final user), and because we have in place MDM to control android phones, extend that platform to thin clients it's easy.
In a few weeks I'll have a better idea.
Claudio
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Forget the narrower perspective of thin client and think users of a larger screen that can leverage the Android app inventory (e.g., schools). Windows app inventories accessible from hosted virtual apps (RDS adn VDI) provides convergence.
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If we can have hd media players on android crunching full hd movies, I think it will suit remote desktops.
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Android is too easily hacked
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I'm a support engineer, so I would use it, not as much as a thin client, but as a dumb terminal connected to a terminal server. Regarding the poor (if not absent) support for keyboard and mouse, it would not be a big issue since I merely need to be connected to monitor other remote users activities and eventualy guide them in solving minor problems.
I know there is an almost inexistant line between a thin client and a dumb terminal server client, but I make a distinction in that the second one is scarcely hardware with a minimum capacity to connect to a mainframe (terminal server), while the thin client is running some minimal OS.
I will appreciate any comments on this particular view. Thanks!
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Interesting thoughts but I overall I was really bothered that you went into talking about the wyse client but then you completely went into why android then clients suck without even indicating if you had tried or even observed actual use of the wyse client. Have you tried the client? Wyse has been the leader in thin clients for a long time and they develop them, so the problems you mention with android are not necessarily insurmountable if wyse put in a lot of dev effort, but your article didnt cover this. I should note I am a Dell employee - but I am not trying to protect the wyse client, I have no idea if it works well or not. I dont know why you would even mention it if you arent going to say what is or isnt good about the experience it actually does create ... that is information that can be known, so your speculation here seems pointless
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I would expect a more unbiased analysis or review than this one. There is nothing inherently worse in an thin client running Android than in many of the overpriced and underpowered thin clients on the market today running Windows Embedded or some custom version of Linux. These usually have a spec sheet that makes even a Atom powered netbook look good.

The Logitech Revue is a old, out of date, unit designed around generic Intel Atom based hardware that never really was customized to run Android. Even the cheap Android tablets available today run circles around it.

I find the user experience acceptable accessing a VMware View desktop on an iPad or newer Android tablet, no reason to not expect the same out of a Android thin client, and if it's only $99 instead of $350 or more, more power to it.

Yes, they will not perform like a dedicated hardware client like say a Teradici zero client does with VMware view, because all the heavy lifting on the zero client is being done by dedicated hardware on those rather than a software client running on underpowered generic hardware.
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I already have Android or iOS on my phone - why the need for a stationary brick ?
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I don't currently own an Android tablet or thin client device, so I wouldn't try to do this today. But in a pinch, if this were the only type of device available, then I'd certainly try it. If the user experience were not optimal, then I'd find/use a better tool (Ultrabook, Surface, iPad?).
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All our thin clients are WES7 as the dedicated hardware is still required to have a quality user experience. Every time I tried a thin OS, I've been thoroughly disappointed with the performance. With a Windows device, Citrix uses the local codex to help with graphics rendering which is absent from non-Windows OSes.
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worried not fast enough. Really I dont care what the OS/config etc is, it just has to perform
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I like a dedicated, known device and WES OS.
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Saved my butt in an airport security line by enabling me to fix my Exchange server moments before I left for vacation.
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Airport security guy again: maybe I don't understand what an Android thin client is. I was using a Galaxy S II which is probably more powerful than a Google TV.
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This is great for displaying information on a large screen such as a presentation
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What is funny to me is a good majority of the conversation is trying to fit the newest technology into the old school rules. We are in a new age and it needs to be embraced... Sorry we dont have the "start button" anymore... We and all folks just need the standard things and that it it. I need the ability to view my applications. I need to be able to get to the data and occasionally I need to print. The rest is us trying to hang on to the BS that makes up our old school way or doing things. Get over it and move on.
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1. Remote Desktop Client are very mature on Android platform.
2. The performance on Android Platform is getting better followed by the up coming dual, quad cores SoC with Graphic Accelerator.
3. Peripherals are getting popular such as Printers, Barcode Scanner, Bluetooth, NFC, ....
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with several Android devices, I'd like to be able to ad hoc connect to desktop. primarily from phone. Would not use as primary client
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To access office desktop or provide support to a remote desktop.
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As the article states: horses for courses.
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Because all of my users already have them
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Security of data amongst other issues, such as lack of keyboard, mouse, etc.
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low cost, powerful enough to cope with
VDI and RDS
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Secure
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